Chinese Nationality Room

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Chinese Nationality Room

COMMEMORATION AND HISTORICAL CONTEXTThe Chinese Memorial Room was dedicated on 6 October 1939 and is among the first batch of 13 Nationality Rooms that were planned and completed between the late 1920s and America’s official entry into World War II in December, 1941. These interwar years were a period marked by cultural diplomacy, in which diplomats projected and self-advertised their respective nations to influence public opinion (Nagy, 2011). According to Nagy (2011), Pittsburgh was “a hotbed of cultural diplomacy in the 1920s and 1930s, one of several [cities] in the United States as foreign states attempted to sway American public opinion” (p. 437). Several European nations “opened official and semi-official cultural centers . . . in the United States between 1925 and 1939” (Nagy, 2011, p. 437), and the Chinese government established its China Institute (funded with Boxer Rebellion indemnity money) during this period. Additionally, the China Development Finance Corporation (CDFC) was established by Dr. H. H. Kung (descendent of Confucius, Oberlin graduate [1906], Chinese banker and politician, Chinese Minister of Finance 1933–1944, brother-in-law of T. V. Soong, and described by Time in 1938 as a “warlike Confucian”) and T. V. Soong (Harvard graduate [1915], Chinese businessman and politician, Chinese Minister of Finance 1928–1933, and brother-in-law of both Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek) in 1934, which provided China’s chief access to foreign investment. Once the Chinese Nationality Room was completed, T. V. Soong was sent to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1940 to win continued support for China’s ongoing war with Japan, which included war materials and military assistance.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONLocated on the north side of the second floor of the Cathedral of Learning (room 136), the Chinese Nationality Room, originally named Chinese Memorial Room, is about 400 square feet and decorated in the style of an 18th century Qing-style reception hall in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The room features a round, vermillion teak lacquered table to allow students and instructor to “participate equally in the learning process,” which reflects the pedagogical philosophy of Confucius, who is depicted in a slate carving on the rear wall. The chair backs and ceiling squares feature Chinese characters representing the virtues of the scholar gentleman and imperial dragons protecting the pearl of wisdom, respectively. The frosted glass of the window keeps out the “intrusion of the modern Western world,” and the red, lacquered door is flanked by two carved stone lions, a ubiquitous feature of Qing architecture.

Chinese Nationality Room (Greene)

H. H. Kung

T. V. Soong

Original design of the Chinese Memorial Room. Notice the Chinese Nationalist state symbol in the center of the celing.

Page from the room dedication program.

Chinese Memorial Room Committee

TAKE-HOME MESSAGEIn terms of culture, power, and resources, in the program for the China Memorial Room dedication ceremony, which was presided over by non other than Dr. Hu Shih, former student of John Dewey at Columbia University, Chinese pragmatist social reformer, and then Chinese Ambassador to the United States, John H. Tsui sums up the work of the CMRC by thanking the Chinese government (despite the war, floods, famines, and invasions that delayed the delivery of the funding) for its support in constructing this room that can not only “give the people of Chinese descent in Pittsburgh a just reason for pride in their ancestral heritage,” but also remind students in years to come “that peace between nations has no surer foundation than that founded on friendships formed in student days.”More than just a display of culture or architecture, the China Memorial Room represents the cultural diplomacy and personal ties to government funding that made it a reality. The China Memorial Room was part of the process by which Chinese representatives in the United States were able to brand China in a positive light, influence public opinion, and receive diplomatic support in the interwar years (Nagy, 2011). Although the design of the Nationality Rooms was to be aesthetic rather than political (on the surface, the China Memorial Room itself and the rhetoric of its description certainly reflects this—see video), the realization of the China Memorial Room was extremely political; moreover, in an ironic twist, with the room being the project of a group of U.S.-educated Chinese elites, the appropriation of Confucius as a democratic symbol is more than slightly dubious.

BUILDING THE ROOM: FOLLOW THE MONEYOn 2 April 1929, Dr. Chi Fang Lai, a graduate student in Chemistry at the time, led a group of Chinese students to meet Chancellor Bowman to reserve a room in the Cathedral of Learning. As China was a nation recognized by the U.S. Department of State (a requirement for participation), the reservation was granted. With the backing of Professor William Hung of the Harvard Yenching Institute and Chinese businessmen in Pittsburgh, Dr. Lai became Chairman of the Chinese Memorial Room Committee (CMRC). Soon after, Dr. C. C. Wu, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, became interested in the project and sent an appeal to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nanjing, explaining that a gift for the project should be appropriated in appreciation of what American education had meant to China. In November 1929, Dr. Wu notified the CMRC that the Chinese Ministry of Finance had appropriated US$5,000 for the design, furnishing, and erection of the room. Then, in spring 1930, Dr. Lai returned to China to serve as an assistant to H. H. Kang, and John H. Tsui (Chinese engineer, graduate of both Worcester Polytechnic Institute [1925] and Pitt [1927]), an engineer at Westinghouse, was appointed Chairman of the CMRC to complete the project. While the CMRC waited for the money from the Ministry of Finance, it carried our fundraising campaigns among the Chinese and friends of China residing in not only Greater Pittsburgh, but also other U.S. metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, frequently relying on their access to the Chinese newspapers (e.g., the Chicago San Min Morning News) circulated in these areas. The CMRC reminded potential donors of their “moral obligation” to provide funds to the project. Meanwhile, T. V. Soong (then Chinese Minister of Finance) gave personal contributions to the CMRC while he was in the United States on diplomatic business. Through these campaigns and contributions, nearly US$5,000 was raised. Finally, on 16 July 1935, H. H. Kung sent the US$5,000 from the Ministry of Finance, giving the CMRC approximately US$10,000 (approximately $250,000 in 2015 dollars) for the project, which was twice the amount pledged in the Deed of Gift signed by the members of the CMRC in March, 1931. The room and its furnishings were then designed and installed over the next 4 years, which even involved one trip to China by Chancellor Bowman, in which he met with Shanghai Mayor Tseng Yuang-fu related to the carved ceiling for the room.

Fund-raising parade float

Ceiling detail

ReferencesNagy, Z. (2011). National identities for export: East European cultural diplomacy in inter-war Pittsburgh. Contemporary European History, 20(4), 435¬–453. doi:10.1017/S0960777311000476http://www.nationalityrooms.pitt.edu

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